I quit

Mmmm, donuts. When I was 13, my friend and I would ride our bikes around the corner to the back door of a little house-turned-bakery that dispensed these delectables warm and slathered with chocolate. In high school, all giggles and schemes, I started a Friday rotation in my German class so that nary a week went by without these cakey treats. College in New England meant there was always a Dunkin’ D in any given sight line, and the corporate world wouldn’t survive without a sleek white bakery box to prop up the coffee pot.

I loved the jelly filled sort most, airy cake plumped full of raspberry goo and so liberally dusted with powdered sugar that it left a trail down my shirt. Later I discovered the sour cream cake version, so heavy with secret fatty goodness that you could see its footprint on any surface it touched. Mmmm, donuts.

But I don’t eat them any more.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that after my eyes rolled back into their proper positions, the rest of my body did not share the euphoria of my taste buds. Five minutes after my last bite, these little goodies would make me feel miserable. I’m pretty sure that their delicious goodness frolicked on my taste buds solely to create a diversion, allowing their more nefarious companions to sneak past my tongue and turn my insides to sludge.

It took me thirty years to discover the ruse, but once I caught on, I quit cold turkey–and I have never regretted it. It wasn’t even hard to do. I just planted my flag in the sand and declared, “I don’t eat donuts.” It was like flipping a switch in my head; I can walk by the most beautiful display of eclairs with nary a flutter of temptation.

Lest you think that my point rests solely in the hollow space of a Krispy Kreme, I challenge you  (and myself) to wipe the glaze from your glasses and look for your donut. What tastes good but feels bad? I’ll bet we can all make a long list of items that have nothing to do with food. The trick is learning how to say no.

(Check out this terrific post from marcandangel.com if you need some inspiration.)

Never give up

Many months ago, I wrote about the importance of staying engaged regardless of age, station in life, or background (Retirement is not an option). Staying engaged means staying relevant. It means being part of the world around you instead of watching it pass by. It means learning and embracing and moving forward. Age means nothing–I’ve seen young people check out and older people become masters of a new universe–but attitude means everything.

The corollary to staying engaged is never give up. I used one of my grandmothers as an example in my earlier post, so I’ll use my other grandmother in this one.

Some time in the 24 hours following my birthday visit earlier this week (see Taking time), my grandma fell and broke her hip. I’ll spare you the details, but for a 98-year-old woman, this kind of injury lends itself to a lot of speculation about the future, and the options don’t look all that good.

Unless you’re my grandma.

Faced with weeks and possibly months of painful rehab or being bed/wheelchair-ridden for the rest of her life, Grandma didn’t bat an eye. “I don’t care how long it takes,” she said emphatically. “I want to be normal again.”

In case you missed it above, Grandma is 98 years old. No one would question her if she said she didn’t want to spend a significant portion of her future learning to walk again. Her swarm of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren–almost 40 strong–would gladly handle her logistics of movement. She has no shortage of support. Yet she has chosen to tackle a difficult project and move herself forward.

I don’t know whether she even liked the man, but clearly she has espoused Winston Churchill’s attitude of “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” And let me tell you, she has a heap of both.

There are days when I want nothing more than to retreat, to curl up inside myself and withdraw from the world around me. That’s a lot harder to do with examples like my grandma. We have to stay engaged and keep on keeping on.

Oh, and did I mention that she went through the surgery awake?

Dual purpose

We build highways with one purpose in mind: facilitating land-hugging, wheeled transportation. Occasionally, we’ll temporarily shut them down to accommodate a bicycle event, a road race, or a parade, but their primary reason for existence is to carry motorized traffic.

Yesterday I happened upon the scene in this photo. (If you want to see better, not-from-inside-a-moving-vehicle shots, click here.) A private plane, about a mile from its destination, ran into trouble and landed on the highway. Besides giving a few motorists heart palpitations, everyone emerged thankfully unscathed.

As my travel companion and I continued on our merry way, I started thinking about how similar a highway is to a runway, its proximity to the airport, and the pilot’s quick thinking–and how incredible it was that all those factors came together perfectly so that no one got hurt.

It also made me wonder what I have in my life that I might be able to use for some other purpose. It might be as small-scale as the hot air popcorn poppers java enthusiasts use to roast their own coffee beans, but it could be something more grandiose. What do I have, use, or do that could change everything if I just think about it from a different perspective?

In his moment of crisis, that pilot didn’t see a road; he saw a place to land his plane. Looking around my life, I know there’s got to be a runway around here somewhere.

If I ruled the world

I can wait for hours in an airport. I can wait for days for my new shoes to come in the mail. I can wait for weeks till my next vacation. I can wait for months to move into my company’s new office building. But put me in a line, and all bets are off. I fidget, mutter under my breath, and glare at hapless queuers who wait until standing at the counter to dig through their purses and pockets to find what the signs clearly note that they need. Trust me, I’m no fun standing in line.

Since summertime means summer camp and I have kids, that means I have to stand in my fair share of lines at registration tables. For some reason, I naively believe that having all of my stuff organized and handled before I go will allow me to sail through the check-in process. Unfortunately, I fail to consider everyone else. Regardless of how prepared I am, no matter that I have filled out all the forms and paid online, I am still relegated to queuing up and waiting. And waiting.

Today was one such occasion.

In my (probably unreasonable, I admit) frustration, a brilliant idea germinated. I looked at my daughter and began, “You know what? If I ruled the world…” Then I proceeded to lay out my plan to reward the pre-registered, pre-paid, prepared people on the planet. (Excuse me for being an alliterative mess.) Here it is.

What if, like the special airport security lane for frequent travelers, venues with registration tables actually had TWO tables: one for people who just need to say “Hi, just wanted to let you know I’ve arrived,” and another for everyone else–people with a balance due, who want to add an amenity, who need special handling? The people who arrive transactionally complete can breeze through and get on with business. When they’ve all been accounted for, the registration personnel from that table can help the other table. Voila. Streamlined registration for everyone.

Alas, that was not to be the case today. My daughter and I arrived at camp and waited in the long line at the registration table. When it was our turn, the lady who greeted us asked my daughter’s name, found it on the list, saw that we had no balance, and put a check mark by her name. Thirty seconds after we had stepped in front of her, she sent us to the nurse’s table. There we waited again for our turn, at which point we reported we had no medicines to check in. The nurse found my completed online form (now printed) in her stack, placed a check mark by my daughter’s name, and sent us to the next table for our cabin assignment. Total actual transaction time at both tables: 60 seconds. Total wait time: 30 minutes.

If only I ruled the world.

Taking time

I dropped my daughter off at camp today, which is located about 35 miles north of where I live. Since I work about 35 miles south of where I live, camp day always means a lot of driving. Every year I feel rushed and guilty for arriving late on the job, so by the time I reach the car after I’ve made up my daughter’s bunk and said my good-byes, I have one thing on my mind: getting to work as fast as I can.

Today also happens to be my grandmother’s ninety-eighth birthday. That’s right, she’s 98. She also lives about 15 miles from the camp, in a little town that lies squarely in my trajectory to work. Even so, I was prepared to let passing through the town serve as a reminder to call her to express my love and birthday greetings.

As I reached the town’s edge, I found myself thinking of a friend who very recently lost his mother. Late or not, I couldn’t squander an opportunity to tell my grandmother I love her. Instead of continuing doggedly down the highway, I turned my car into the parking lot of a floral shop and bought my grandma a bouquet of summer flowers. Then I headed to her apartment and gave her a hug.

I’m glad I took the time.

Happy birthday, grandma.

Sleep well

I picked up my son this weekend at wrestling camp, where I found him exhausted but content. At 13, he’s already a pro at independent living, so I didn’t worry too much when the only communication I received from him–with prompting on my end, of course–consisted of two text messages. The first read, “Doing fine, but I have to put my phone away. Love ya.” He followed the next day with, “It’s cool. Tough, but I like it.” Maybe it wasn’t as prolific as I would have liked, but I knew he was okay.

Since he wasn’t talking, I had to rely on the camp brochure to know what he was doing. The camp featured a tough schedule of extended workouts and practices, commencing at 6am and shutting down for the night with lights out at 10:30pm. Even the limited free time revolved around sportsmanship, when the kids could play basketball or watch inspirational sports movies. The discipline of it all sounded perfect for a 13-year-old boy looking to train hard.

Only one thing made me shudder: the sleeping arrangements. Because the camp took place at a high school, the luxury of dorm rooms and beds didn’t exist. Instead, all the campers–104, to be exact–brought sleeping bags and pillows and sprawled en masse on the wrestling mats in the gym each night. Miserable, thinks my spoiled self.

Naturally, when I arrived to take him home, I asked Jake if he had minded sleeping with the others in an open gym. I wanted to know if he had been able to get much rest. Yeah, he said, it was fine. That surprised me, until he added, One kid got up and wandered around a lot. He must not have been working very hard during the day, because I don’t know how anyone could have trouble sleeping if he had really been working. I was so tired that I fell asleep every night before they turned off the lights.

What my son threw out as an offhanded statement made an impact on me. I hope that someday he realizes the true profundity of his words. There are many reasons a person might not sleep well, but a full day of going all-out isn’t one of them.

Work hard or play hard, but give it your all. You’ll sleep better.

Get involved

Sometimes I find great customer service experiences in the most unexpected places. Yesterday I took my son to wrestling camp at a high school about an hour’s drive from home. It’s an overnight camp, so the check-in process was more involved than a typical drop-and-run.

As soon as we walked into the school, a student assistant immediately greeted us and led my son to his assigned locker room. Another directed me to the check-in area, where we found a series of tables laid out in progressive order. The first table was check-in/registration, the one behind it was medical check-in, and behind that were menus and team assignments, respectively. Because of the layout (one behind the other), movement was intuitive and people couldn’t inadvertently wander to the wrong table.

Everyone had to start at the registration table before moving on, and none other than the coach himself handled the check-in. He personally manned that table so he could introduce himself to every parent, sibling, and hanger-on who brought a kid to camp. And he didn’t just stand there shaking hands; he was THE guy, the only guy.

Not just as a parent, but also as a customer, I thought this was a brilliant move. In that masterful positioning of tables and bodies, he invested himself personally in that camp. He recognized that his “customers” were more than just the kids taking part; they were also the parents who entrusted their mini macho men to his care. He got involved, and his actions spoke volumes.

As long as my kid wants to keep going to that camp, he’s got my blessing. Brands are personal; what a powerful object lesson.

Please hand cancel

When I was a kid and put a special piece of artwork in the mail to a grandparent, my mom would instruct me to write Please Hand Cancel on the envelope. This meant that my piece of mail would have its postmark applied by a person rather than a machine, thus hopefully preserving whatever special adornment I had affixed to the precious page inside.

Hand cancelling is a work-around for exceptions, the items that don’t fit easily into automated processes. As a manual activity, it takes more time and effort to accomplish what otherwise follows a streamlined procedure, but it provides a valuable service to the customer who would otherwise end up disappointed by damaged mail.

I recently ran into an electronic version of hand cancelling, only in this case, the inconvenience was transferred to the customer (namely me) rather than the service provider. I received an email notification that the credit card I had attached to my wallstreetjournal.com subscription had expired and that I should enter a new number so that my automatic renewal would be able to proceed unimpinged.

Because the email actually reminded me that I had a subscription, I decided to cancel the auto-renew feature and let it expire. Easy enough, thought I, and proceeded to the WSJ website to uncheck whatever box achieved my purpose.

Several minutes and fruitless clicks later, I still couldn’t figure out how to accomplish my mission. Finally, in the FAQ section (I hate to ask for help), I found How do I cancel my subscription? Perfect, I thought.

Unfortunately, the answer left me deflated: Cancellation requests are accepted by contacting customer service directly. When I read on, looking for an email address, I found: Cancellations are accepted by phone and US mail. What should have been an easy, automated process became a hand-cancel situation. I had to go outside the system.

While I understand that WSJ doesn’t want to lose customers–lost customers = lost revenue–sending them away frustrated doesn’t seem to be in their best interest either. I think they hope that people like me will decide it’s not worth the hassle and give up, thus remaining on the payment roster. Or that they can talk me into staying if I do make the call. (Interestingly, the rep never asked me why or tried to talk me into staying.)

Hand cancelling is supposed to be a service, not a hassle. It seems to me that if you’re going to lose a customer, it’s far better to let her leave happy than frustrated.

Gut check

In my career, I’ve had the privilege of hiring several people. Although I’ve enjoyed the company of every single one, not all of them ended up being a good fit for their respective positions. On the flip side, some have far exceeded my expectations.

On balance, the good choices have outweighed the bad, mostly due to learning some tough lessons along the way. Not only have I learned which questions might lead to the most insightful answers, but I’ve also learned how those insights might indicate fit. I’ve learned which questions I can ask and which questions I can’t. I’ve learned how to read between the lines on a resume. I’ve learned to check references and to verify education. I’ve learned, essentially, to do my homework.

I’ve also learned to trust my gut.

The most important tool I have in my interview arsenal is my own intuition. It took awhile to get the nuance right, but I think I’ve figured it out. A bad gut feeling is enough for a veto. A good gut feeling signals a need for supporting evidence.

Every time something about a candidate has made me uncomfortable—even if she looks great on paper and doesn’t botch the personal interview—she has ended up being a poor fit for the position in question when I’ve hired her anyway. If I’m not excited about bringing a particular person on my team, I shouldn’t do it.

The flip side isn’t so simple. Gambling on a good gut feeling alone isn’t always a sure bet. The few times that I’ve done that, jumping ahead of my usual due diligence, I’ve been sorely disappointed. I still need to check the facts.

Of course, no one gets it right every time, but I’ve learned two important lessons: to trust my gut when it says no, and to be skeptical when it screams YES!


Eleven years ago today, my life changed dramatically. My daughter came into my life with pomp and circumstance, marching straight to center stage without hesitation. From the very first day, she was self-aware and purposeful. She has always known what she wants and goes after it immediately–even if that changes next week.

The path to her goals is littered with people she has left smiling, better for having known her–not for simply the act of knowing her, but because she never hesitates to stop and help. She pours out love and care on everyone around her and her well never dries. Without even trying, she leaves everyone glittering with her sparkle.

I’m in awe of this girl who is at once smart and kind and thoughtful and creative and confident and sensitive–all with a panache like I’ve never seen elsewhere. I wish I could claim those traits came from me, but they are all her own.

Happy birthday, Kara. You’re the girl I always dreamed to be.